Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Planning the words you call forth: Why you should make a plan before writing an essay

Writers should plan something about their essays before sitting down to write.  You might plan the writing process (the “how”) or the marketing (the “why”), if not the content of the essay itself (the “what”).  It isn’t always essential that you know exactly what you’re going to write ahead of time — in fact, a research-based essay may require you to keep an open mind about the conclusions you will draw.  But even if you do not yet have a conclusion, you must have a reason for wanting to write your essay, and if you know what your motivation is, you should be able to articulate a plan.

It may help to envision a different kind of art.  When a sculptor works with marble, there is a finite amount of material that can only be subtracted from.  The sculptor must be careful not to remove parts of the stone unintentionally, as the carving cannot be undone.  By contrast, when she works with clay, she can either add or subtract material to the sculpture.

This is an imperfect analogy for writing, but it highlights the need to understand what you are working with.  Have you written any parts of the essay yet, or are you beginning with a blank page?   Are you planning to use quotations or facts from other sources?  Are you collaborating with other writers?  How much freedom do you have to choose your tone or voice? Will your essay turn an undecided argument back and forth like a pearl between your thumb and forefinger, or do you need to express certainty?  How much time do you have to complete it?  How many words can you use?  Whether you’re working with marble or clay, figuratively speaking, has ramifications for how you approach your task.

A plan will help you finish your work on time, which keeps you and your editor or teacher happy.  Your plan may include methods to keep distractions at bay.  It reduces your headaches and stress because you will be able to keep track of your progress.  It reassures any other writers with whom you may be working and identifies their tasks.  As part of your plan, an outline of the essay itself will help you know whether you’ve accomplished the key parts of your argument and whether your paragraphs are organized coherently.

Again, having a plan does not mean that you have to be certain of your message.  “It seems to me that the best fiction (or painting, or dancing, or anything) carries a message, and that the message is one of which the artist is largely unaware,” the novelist and writing coach Lawrence Block said in Writer’s Digest in March 1986.  “If I have the desire to write a novel, let us say, and if I know in advance what I want to say in that novel, why on earth should I bother to write it?"

Block is saying that the writing process and the finished product can be valuable to the writer as well as to the readers.  The writer does not always know what the essay will contain; it is this not-knowing, this mystery, this unconscious drive that pushes the writer to produce.  When Block writes, he is driven to answer his own questions, to fill his own need.  It will be impossible for a writer like Block to plan every detail of the essay.  The essay will be complete when it appears to be so — not when some predetermined outline says it ought to be so.

Another potential pitfall of over-planning is that the essay can become merely instrumental toward achieving some other goal.  A thought attributed to the Catholic writer Jacques Maritain is that when one writes in order to worship, or worships in order to write, both the writing and the worship fall short.  The teaching means that a writer should be fully invested in the beauty, truth, and completeness of the essay itself and avoid treating the essay as a stepping-stone on the way to some other goal.

In a similar vein, an observation attributed to the philosopher Schopenhauer holds that some people think in order to write, while others write because they have thought.  This is a subtle way of warning that you oughtn’t write if you have nothing to say.  More specifically, you shouldn’t invest a lot of time in thinking and planning an essay just because you want to write an essay.  The essay should be urged along by a genuine idea, feeling or knowledge base that calls it into being; the essay cannot spring merely from a plan to find some ideas, feelings and knowledge, or the essay will fall flat.

All things being equal, it’s better to plan.  Between two equally inspired, talented, and dedicated writers, the one who plans their essay ahead will produce a more comprehensible written argument in less time.  

Sticking to a plan can restrain you from “over-sharing” your opinions, feelings, or collected facts.  As the playwright Thornton Wilder said, “Art is not only the desire to tell one's secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time."

A plan cannot hurt if you remember that you have the freedom to change your plan if the need arises.  You might discover new things you want to say, or you might need to take a break from writing to attend an unexpected distraction.  What is more likely to hold you back is not having a plan at all.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on March 10, 2013. Image by: Art Hupy, c. 1965 © Creative Commons. University of Washington Libraries, Digital Collections. Flickr.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mistaking consumerism for happiness

Most of us do not consciously expect consumer goods to give us everything we want and need in life. However, consumerism insidiously promotes an ideology of what Steven Hayes has called "feel-goodism," the idea that people can and should feel good all the time. Hayes described feel-goodism's implications in this way: "If you consume the right products, eat the right pill, drink the right beer, drive the right car, you believe that you're not going to feel anything you don't like." He adds, "that is not the definition of a meaningful life, and...people know it."

Yet in other ways, consumerism does tap into better definitions of a meaningful life. "That consumption has something sacred about it is obvious from the central position it now occupies," wrote Thomas Berry. Using nearly theological language, Vincent Vinikas wrote: "Advertising is process. It inundates us, and in its perpetual waking, it alters the store of accumulated shared experiences of a people." He meant that advertisements give us a sense of belonging to a group and they help transmit and preserve cultural memories. With a sense of humor, Jim Wallis more recently noted the "constant barrage of commercials that sound increasingly theological: 'Datsun Saves,' 'Buick, Something to Believe In,' 'Kmart Is Your Saving Place,' 'Keep That Great GM Feeling,' 'The Good News of Home Heating,' 'GE: We bring good things to life.'" Perhaps due in part to slogans like these, Rabbi Jamie Korngold was able to quip that our society teaches us only two ways of dealing with spiritual dissatisfaction: "1. Buy more stuff. 2. Buy more stuff."

Why do we mistake consumerism for a path to real happiness? Here are two likely reasons.

First, we are drawn to products not because they really make us happy, according to Alain de Botton, but because "expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don't understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one." Take, for example, the psychological needs of a political activist campaigning for her strongly held beliefs. Coming to understand, refine, and communicate one's beliefs takes a great deal of patience. Rabbi Michael Lerner pointed out that, in at least one instance, "the fact that movement activists expected instant [moral] transformation reflected the way in which they had themselves been shaped by the instant gratification ethos of the consumer culture." In reality, moral transformation requires introspection, time, and hard work.

The promotion of consumer goods, in its mimicry of psychological, spiritual, and moral fulfillment, confuses those eudaimonic pathways with mere hedonism. One may begin to believe that superficial pleasures are crucial to abiding happiness. Kathleen Norris describes the "perfect consumer" as one who has become "less able to distinguish between needs and wants, between self-indulgence and self-respect." Such a person may actually feel burdened by a modern convenience, such as a vacuum cleaner, that has become a "necessity." In this way, one fails to see the product as imitating the fulfillment of deep human needs, and rather begins to believe that the product truly embodies that fulfillment.

Second, buying things makes us feel close to others and part of a group. Andrew McKenna wrote that the advertising industry is based upon a "single organizing principle of mimetic theory" which is that "desire is contagious." In other words, commercial products aren't always valuable and individuals don't always arrive at our own opinions - we just imitate everyone else's behavior.

Of course, some material products such as food really do meet essential needs. Amitai Etzioni said that material consumption becomes the "social disease" of consumerism once we seek products to help us achieve "self-esteem and self-actualization." David Berreby made a related analysis that our innate, "bottom-up" thoughts tend to be simple and animalistic ("like the desire of each and every one of us to eat pretty often"), whereas our complex, cultural, "top-down" thoughts include things we "never felt until [we] saw a movie or heard a song on the radio." These thoughts are not necessarily any less influential for being culturally manufactured.

We have just outlined two kinds of imitation involved in consumerism: material fulfillment imitating psychological fulfillment, and people imitating each other's desires. These correspond to the afflictions of those whom priest and activist Ivan Illich has called "prisoners of addiction" and "prisoners of envy," the two kinds of slaves in "consumer society".

Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 9, 2011.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Jack Sullivan in 'Jackfoolery' by Mark Johnson (with spoilers)

In Mark Johnson's short novel Jackfoolery, eccentric 52-year-old billionaire Jack Sullivan launches his politically independent presidential campaign in the American West during the Clinton years. He has a Purple Heart from the Vietnam War from which he returned as a young man of about 20 without his penis and scrotum, having been hit by a projectile. Jack thinks about “the track so chaotic that no god can decipher or compel a reason for it, like the mystery of a particle’s position, the unknown ‘why,’ the profound ‘why’ – the ‘why’ which first occurred to him the day the doctor had told him his balls were blown off.” He thinks about how, if he’d just been standing in a slightly different place, the outcome might have been different. He ruminates

“until his thinking became a scar slashed across his psyche, a cascading chorus of watch outs that would often raise its spectral head in the years to come and send him sliding down a path of paralysis, fearing the moment and its consequences. It was a weakness he’d never told anybody about, and at times it would parade him through a series of tasks like a prisoner shilling for his captor, a puppet of uncertainty dancing to a distorted causality, cowering before the great unknown.”

His wife Gail recalls “all the early years of his anguish, cajoling her to have sex with others, like it was the only reasonable approach, the only fair thing.” They never have a child, however. And Gail feels he did not really want this approach:

She is quite certain that in Jack, as in other men she’s known, the reaction to the possibility of unfaithfulness is physiological. She has seen the eyes on fire, the body drawn forward, fists clenched, the rock hard ends of clubs ready to beat the intruder, the interloper, into senselessness—cut off his testicles and raise them to the heavens in triumph: “I have cut off your testicles, you are no longer a man, your sperm will swim no more forever in the great river of life. Such is the way of things.”

Eventually, they achieve their new normal. When Gail is asked, “So what’s it like being the wife of the world’s most famous eunuch?”, she replies, “It’s exciting,” and then elaborates, “Well, Jack’s running for President, you know.”

Jack does not initially have a platform. He is opposed to lying, including obfuscations for the sake of social grace. He is ambivalent about adultery and whether it can be considered wrong in all situations. He is appalled by President Clinton's lie about his adultery – more because of the lie than by the subject of what was lied about. As the press continues to ask him what he believes in, he begins with estrogen-mimicking chemicals used in agriculture. “So if I was you,” he warns, “I’d make sure my wife and kids were as far away from my fields as possible, unless you want your boys running around with little teeny peckers not knowing where to put them.” He moves on to a stream-of-consciousness medley of other topics that temporarily grab his philosophical interest, some of which indeed have potential to be of some national interest, but none of which are addressed in a politically pragmatic or effective way.

In his initial public speech announcing his candidacy, Jack appoints Dr. Harvey Streem "to serve as my personal physician with the delicate task of tailoring my hormonal levels”. Jack’s truck is “followed by Doc Streem’s truck with its cross and syringe and ‘better government through hormones’ declared on the doors.” This seems rather like stars who travel with a personal stylist, except in this case, he has a “world famous endocrinologist”. Doc Streem gives him daily injections in the buttocks, and Jack gives him daily feedback about his sex drive. Doc Streem

"is worried about Jack, about the none-too-subtle requests for increases in his testosterone levels. He recalls having read about ‘phantom limb pain’ in Soviet medical literature and is wondering if Jack is experiencing something on this order…If he recalled correctly, the literature said that by conjuring up images of past sexual experience, often with the aid of hypnosis, over time the amputee could develop the ability to create a kind of virtual event that could bring his prosthesis to life."

He calls one of them “Love Potion #9,” which combines “testosterone and estrogen with a mild mood enhancer, highly recommended by the visualization people,” and he takes Jack’s blood pressure immediately after injecting it, whereafter Jack “visualizes himself whole.”

Streem also gives “a minimal dosage” of testosterone to one of the women in Jack’s entourage at her request: “just a little edge, a little fierceness enhancer,” she thinks. “So she had consented, and struck, and now she would never be the same. She had crossed the threshold, like the young boy who raises his fists against another and triumphs, who walks away with chest puffed out, conqueror, king of the jungle.”

Jack tells others: “Look at FDR, poor bastard couldn’t even walk. And me, I’ve got my artificial, and ol’ Doc Streem’s injections make me just about normal. And it’s kind of metaphorical, you know, after Vietnam. So I can empathize. I am Eunuch, you know, like what’s her name sings.” (This seems to be a reference to Helen Reddy’s song “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”) He then offers to drop trou to prove his status.

There are three extended references to Jack's ability to urinate, which he does gleefully on display for reporters. In the first case, he "disconnects the plastic tube running to the contoured plastic bag velcroed to his leg, dumps the contents into the john, scratches the emptiness between his legs and comes out singing, “Sixteen horses beating on their trumpets...ba ba...ba ba...ba ba bababa ba...and where are you tonight, Sweet Marie.” In the second case, standing next to a tree, he “extracts the end of a rather long hose that is attached to the Streem-designed catheter bag strapped to his leg. Then he flips the switch on the CO2 cartridge attached to the bag, unclamps the hose...” He explains that he was tired of having to “rely on gravity” and wanted the device to give him an arc. “You see, I think it’s important for a man to piss outside now and then. Unfortunately, there’s all too few opportunities for that now. So, I’m going to address that problem when I become President.” In the third case, it is stated that his catheter "doesn’t drain the bladder directly. His sphincter muscle still works, so the tube has been attached downstream from that so he can still piss, although all he’s holding in his hand is a length of plastic tubing with a stopcock on the end.”

When he considers a flaccid prothesis again for appearance's sake, using an adhesive to the skin, his wife Gail says she thinks it’s unnecessary. Jack says,

“Yeah, I guess I’m being silly. And anyway everybody would know it was fake, like a rug, or a bunch of those silly plugs stuck on top of your head. I suppose it’s just this middle age shit. You kind of think you’re immune from it, being a eunuch and all, but I guess it can even transcend that.”

Erect prostheses, on the other hand, are something of which he has many. They are replicas of both penis and testicles, carved entirely of wood and mounted on wooden base plates with leather straps. He keeps them in leather cases. One of them is hung from the headboard of a bed in an attic at a Yale sorority.

"Twice a year the room in the attic was opened—once at the end of pledge week to introduce it to new members, and then again the night before final exams began, at which time it was purported to acquire magical powers. If kissed it was said to assure success in final exams. Of course there were all kinds of rumors about its other magic powers..."

The press reports: “Rumors have been circulating all week that Sullivan intends to either drop his drawers to validate his war injury, or read a list of powerful people in the political world who have purchased his dildos."

He says on camera: “You see, as President, I think it is important that a man, or woman for that matter, has balls.”

RIP Jack, felled by Love Potion #9, the end of the road for him.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Protests by U.S. states succeed in stalling ‘Real ID’

The Real ID Act was a post-9/11 attempt to mandate technological and data-sharing enhancements to government-issued identity cards. It was tacked on to the end of an $82 billion military spending bill that passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in May 2005 without any debate on the Real ID portion of the bill. While the federal government argued it was necessary to prevent people who arrive in the country illegally from obtaining false identity cards, many individuals, institutions and local governments perceived it as a privacy intrusion.

It was originally supposed to be implemented in May 2008. Ideological and practical objections to implementing Real ID resulted in formal extensions for implementation, first to December 2009, then to May 2011, then to January 2013. As of September 2013, however, only 20 states were judged compliant by the Department of Homeland Security.

How would Real ID change identity cards?

When the Real ID Act was first introduced, most driver's licenses issued by U.S. states already recorded and displayed the individual's legal name, sex, date of birth, address, digital photograph and ID card number. Real ID enhancements would additionally require identity cards to display the person's signature, contain data readable by commonly available technology (most likely just an unencrypted barcode, and not necessarily radio-frequency chips) and employ security features to prevent tampering or duplication.

Many have speculated that this will soon imply the use of "biometric identifiers" (e.g. fingerprints). To obtain such an identity card, a person would need to show documentation of name, address, birth date, and legal residence in the United States. Finally, states would be required to share their information databases with all other states.

In January 2007, the Maine Legislature passed a resolution objecting to Real ID. Many states followed suit and passed their own legislation against the project. (Aside from triggering privacy concerns, the technology can also be expensive.) Ultimately, like-minded lawmakers from two-thirds of U.S. states formed a coalition to protest its implementation.

The non-compliance of the states was a significant barrier to the federal government's implementation of Real ID. The Act holds that, if state motor vehicle agencies do not meet all requirements by the deadline, the identity cards issued by that state will be deemed obsolete and invalid for federal purposes. This means that millions of people will not have valid ID to drive or to board airplanes. While the threat of this bureaucratic, logistical and economic nightmare was evidently intended to pressure states to comply, the states have repeatedly called the federal government's bluff.

FindLaw columnist Anita Ramasastry explained in 2005:

"The Real ID Act's identity cards will be required if one wants to drive, visit a federal government building, collect Social Security, access a federal government service or use the services of a private entity (such as a bank or an airline) that is required under federal law to verify customer identity. It will be nearly impossible to live without such an ID."

Declan McCullagh elaborated in 2008 that the Department of Homeland Security has the power to extend the list of affected activities:

"Real ID could in theory be required for traveling on Amtrak, collecting federal welfare benefits, signing up for Social Security, applying for student loans, interacting with the U.S. Postal Service, entering national parks, and so on."

He added that Homeland Security recently "refused to rule out requiring Real ID for firearm purchases in the future."

U.S. states are slow to comply

With three months to go before the original scheduled implementation in May 2008, Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire had pledged not to implement it, and another fifteen states were still undecided. The federal government did not retract its plan to implement Real ID, but it rolled back the scheduled implementation date.

Once again, two months before the revised deadline in May 2011, the National Conference of State Legislatures said that 24 states were non-compliant.

And again: With less than one month to go before the planned January 2013 implementation, the Department of Homeland Security said that only 13 states had already met the requirements. "DHS expects to publish a schedule by early fall 2013 and begin implementation at a suitable date thereafter," the department's official press release said. In other words, there was no plan to punish the residents of non-compliant states.

By September 2013, the number of compliant states had increased only to 20. The remainder continued to enjoy a "temporary deferment," meaning that the government will "continue to accept driver’s licenses and identity cards issued by all states" for the time being.

The DHS "REAL ID Public FAQs" webpage that had contained this information in September 2013 was subsequently removed and republished under a different URL. In December 2014, the new page said that Real ID was scheduled to be in place already for federally classified "restricted areas," was scheduled to be required within the month for "semi-restricted areas," but that the refusal to accept IDs issued by noncompliant states for the purposes of boarding commercial aircraft would not be enforced until 2016 at the earliest. In December 2016, it was reported that drivers licenses from 9 states — Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington — would become invalid for air travel beginning Jan. 22, 2018 because those states were not yet in compliance with Real ID standards.

Will Real ID become obsolete even before it is implemented?

Of course, the delay on the Real ID scheme does not mean that citizens' data are not being collected by other methods. As just one example, radio-frequency chips (RFID) are increasingly commonplace. U.S. passports already use them. New York offers optional RFID enhancements to driver's licenses (for a fee) so that they can be used for travel between Canada and Mexico. In January 2013, a U.S. district judge ruled that public schools can require students to carry RFID.

"The government has easy access to our tax information, stock trades, phone bills, medical records and credit-card spending, and it is just getting started," Andy Kessler wrote for the Wall Street Journal in January 2013. He pointed out that the country has 30 million commercial surveillance cameras and that "the National Security Agency is building a $2 billion, one-million-square-foot facility with the capacity to consume $40 million of electricity a year" for the purpose of being able to store the data from "every email, cellphone call, Google search and surveillance-camera video for a long time to come."

The idea behind Real ID may therefore be fulfilled by other technologies and regulations, even if Real ID itself is never implemented. Nearly a decade on, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. federal government will ever force the states to comply. It may be that some powerful new technology will eventually render ID cards themselves obsolete.

Image: A U.S. prisoner's identity document in 1916 included physical measurements. Image by: Department of Justice. Office of the Superintendent of Prisons. U.S. Penitentiary, Atlanta. © No known copyright restrictions. Flickr, on the Commons.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

In 2014, Uganda decrees life imprisonment for gay people

Same-sex relations have been illegal in Uganda for years, but in 2014, President Museveni signed stiffer penalties into law. Some activists say they are the worst in the world.

Much of the world was shocked to learn of the draconian law against same-sex relations that was recently passed in Uganda. People in Uganda can be sentenced to life in prison for even attempting to have sex with a person of the same sex.

Recent history of the climate for gay Ugandans

Homosexuality, considered to be an act "against the order of nature," was already illegal in Uganda (as it is in 38 of 54 African countries, according to Amnesty International) and carried a jail term of up to 14 years. Gay people were already routinely subject to harassment. Considering that many countries are improving their treatment of gay people and allowing more sexual freedom, one might have hoped that Uganda would head in that direction, too, but it has not.

In one high-profile case, gay rights activist David Kato was murdered in his home on Jan 26, 2011, bludgeoned with a hammer, following the publication of his photograph in a newspaper with the inflammatory words "Hang Them."

Although the murderer was sentenced to a lengthy jail term, and although Ugandan activists staged the nation's first Gay Pride parade the next year, the social and political climate for gay people did not improve. In September 2012, a British man was jailed for producing a play with a Ugandan cast, "The River and the Mountain," about a gay businessman whose mother tries to cure his homosexuality and who is subsequently murdered by his own employees.

Uganda has been mulling more severe penalties for same-sex relations ever since a bill was introduced in 2009 by a member of parliament, David Bahati, that would have declared some same-sex activities to be capital crimes, earning the bill its nickname "Kill the Gays". European nations threatened to withdraw aid from Uganda - a nation of 31 million people that receives 10 percent of its gross national income from foreign aid - and the bill was not pursued at that time.

The 'Christmas gift' of the Anti-Homosexuality Act

Nonetheless, in December 2013, Uganda's parliament passed a version of the bill, also known as "The Anti-Homosexuality Act," that dramatically increases the length of prison sentences and the reasons for which they can be given. Any attempt to have sex (possibly including flirtation, or a "1984"-like kind of "thoughtcrime"); any "counsel" provided to someone else about sex (as a sexual health educator would typically provide); any performance of a same-sex marriage ceremony (as a religious clergyperson would typically perform, although the marriage would not have legal standing anyway in Uganda); or simply "promoting homosexuality" (as, perhaps, through the advocacy of tolerance) can result in seven years in jail. If any sort of physical contact is involved in an alleged attempt to have sex, the penalty is increased to life in prison. Needless to say, there is also life imprisonment for "aggravated homosexuality" - a charge defined as having sex with a minor; having sex at all, even with protection, if one is infected with HIV; or simply having sex multiple times. 

The law is open for abuse because the alleged "perpetrators" may be forced to pay unlimited compensation to their alleged "victims," in addition to serving jail time. Therefore, the "victims" have a great incentive to report people for such attempts; it may be an effective form of blackmail, putting one's personal enemy in prison and simultaneously extorting money from him. 

Additionally, an alleged "victim" is permitted to commit any crime - presumably including assault - against an alleged "perpetrator," with impunity. Landlords have incentive to evict gay tenants, as there is a five-year prison penalty for allowing same-sex activity in one's house.

The bill's religious promoters referred to it as a "Christmas gift" to the nation.

Signed into law in February 2014

After the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed, Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni initially declined to sign it, suggesting that gay people needed treatment rather than punishment and claiming that there was a procedural problem because not enough members of parliament were present when the bill was passed. Nonetheless, on Feb. 15, 2014, Museveni announced to a conference of the ruling political party, the National Resistance Movement, that he would indeed sign the legislation, as he declared "a war with the homosexual lobby in the world".

Museveni signed the bill on Feb. 24, warning his "friends from the West" against "social imperialism - to impose social values of one group on our society." The day after that, a Ugandan newspaper called Red Pepper "outed" the names of 200 people it claimed were gay.

International reaction

Undeterred by the complaint that other countries should not "impose" their values on Uganda's president, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry immediately warned that the United States might cut aid to Uganda, citing the bill's signing as "a tragic day for Uganda and for all who care about the cause of human rights." Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said that he was "extremely disappointed."

Europe took more direct action: About $27 million in aid from Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands was either frozen or redirected away from the Ugandan government to charities in Uganda.

Within a few days, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said that the bank would suspend a $90 million loan to Uganda. The loan had been intended for health services, and those projects could have been impacted by the law insofar as discussing sexuality in a healthcare context can now potentially run afoul of the law.

He wrote a column for the Washington Post acknowledging that 81 countries criminalize homosexuality, and he connected this discrimination with sexism more broadly. "Eliminating discrimination is not only the right thing to do; it's also critical to ensure that we have sustained, balanced and inclusive economic growth in all societies," Kim wrote. He also said, pointedly, that the fact that millions of Africans today receive medical treatment for AIDS may be credited to the activism of gay men and women throughout the world.

The Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa compared the "Anti-Homosexuality Act" to the former racial apartheid system in South Africa. If Uganda wished to take action against sex crimes, he suggested, why not focus on criminal penalties for rape, child molestation and human trafficking?

What next?

People in Uganda unfortunately have to cope with this restrictive law for the time being. A few are said to have fled the country for their own safety. Sexuality is part of human nature and human experience, and criminalizing it does not make it go away, so this law will surely be revisited in the near future.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on March 5, 2014.

Photo: Africa Source 2 meet at Kalangala Island, Uganda. Taken by Frederick "FN" Noronha. © GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The controversy over releasing the identity of a man who helped kill Osama bin Laden

A memoir of the killing of Osama bin Laden was published by Penguin on Sept. 11, 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil perpetrated under bin Laden's direction. The publisher describes the book as a "blow-by-blow narrative" that "is an essential piece of modern history." (Read a review posted to Goodreads on Sept. 19, 2012.)

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden was written by a U.S. Navy SEAL using the pseudonym Mark Owen. Owen was one of 24 men who participated in the raid. Navy SEALs meet strict requirements for physical fitness, mental aptitude, and psychological resilience before entering rigorous training.

Even before his book hit the shelves of bookstores, "Owen" was expected to face legal charges for publishing it. His contract with the Pentagon forbid him to reveal information about the raid. When, on Nov. 5, 2014, the author sued his attorney for $8 million for incorrectly advising that the book did not need to be reviewed by the Department of Defense, he revealed in the lawsuit that the government was demanding a penalty of $4.5 million from the author. The amount represented the current and expected future proceeds of the book.

The author's real name was revealed by Justin Fishel in a controversial story for Fox News on Aug. 23, and his name is now widely known. Within a day of that story, the book soared to the position of the single best-selling book on Amazon, even though the book was still only available for pre-order.

Fishel had previously blogged about Navy SEAL Team 6 following the famous mission. In a post for Fox News shortly after the 2011 killing of bin Laden, Fishel noted that the small team of elite service-members "have expressed concerns about their safety and the safety of their families now that details of the mission have been made public."

Indeed, the US government did not even want the name of the unit to be made public; Obama did not mention it in his address to the nation immediately following the raid.

The government also declined to release photos of bin Laden's corpse, fearing that the risk of sparking violent retaliation outweighed the benefit of assuring the public of the terrorist's demise.

Why did Fishel, who understands the role of privacy in protecting the SEALs' safety, write a story using the memoirist's real name? Perhaps he believed that the memoirist had put his fellow soldiers at risk and therefore was fair game for retaliation. Fishel quoted a SEAL who said, "How do we tell our guys to stay quiet when this guy [Owen] won't?" and a military spokesman who said, "He’s [Owen's] the one who started this so he bears the ultimate responsibility for this.”

Other major news outlets distanced themselves from Fox's stance. Even though the author's real name had already been revealed, NBC News said it would not use the name in its news stories, and CNN expressed a similar position. Both organizations acknowledged that the publisher of No Easy Day had requested that the media not perpetuate the publication of the author's real name.

Unsurprisingly, the revelation of the SEAL's real identity had prompted terrorist websites to publish death threats against him. It seems likely that news organizations that refrain from publishing the man's real name might feel a lessened sense of responsibility for hate speech that uses the man's real name.

Being "outed" to the press is risky for someone who has participated in classified activity. There are numerous examples of this.

In 2003, White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove told Matt Cooper, a journalist for Time, that former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife Valerie Plame was an active CIA agent. Days later, Robert Novak published a column in the Washington Post identifying Plame's role. Plame, of course, could no longer serve in the same career once her identity had been made public. It is generally believed that this was done intentionally to punish her husband for publicly disagreeing with one of the White House's positions.

In 2012, another identity disclosure affected a Pakistani man who assisted the US in locating the residence where bin Laden was subsequently killed. A Pakistani tribal court sentenced the man to 33 years in jail on charges of treason.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 27, 2012.

This American flag was photographed aboard an aircraft carrier on Dec. 7, 2001. San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. © No known copyright restrictions. Flickr.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A eunuch serial killer: A review of 'Murder 2'

Murder 2 is a Bollywood film released in 2011 about a serial killer of call girls. The Murder 2 storyline is heavily based upon the South Korean movie The Chaser (Chugyeogja, 2008), but in Murder 2, as the Times of India put it, "the antagonist is kind of Indianized by giving him a eunuch identity." The killer's inconsistent gender identity, based on a distorted image of femininity, also bears similarities to the villain in Hollywood's "The Silence of the Lambs," a story which in turn was imitated by Bollywood in Sangharsh (1999). The killer in Murder 2 has the same last name as the killer in Sangharsh. Additionally, the place where the bodies are dumped evokes the burial place in The Ring, originally a Japanese film.

Murder 2 is suspenseful, revealing part of the complex inner life of the hero, Arjun (Emraan Hashmi), who fell from grace at his former police job but nevertheless retains a strong impulse to defend the poor and powerless from criminals. To pursue justice, he works behind the law, without notifying police wherever possible. He struggles with his Christian faith because he is angry at God. He is clearly entranced by his girlfriend Priya (Jacqueline Fernandez) but is not prepared to express love and loyalty to her. The serial killer pursued by Arjun is also an unpredictable character, and the film contains a fair amount of the creatively horrifying violence one expects from such a story.

Meanwhile – spoilers to follow! – the most memorable part of the film is its treatment of India's "eunuch" gender identity as something that is supposed to make the serial killer seem even more unsettling. The killer, Dhiraj (Prashant Narayanan), is a sadist who once kept his own wife in a cage. When hired as a sculptor to make Goddess idols, he made demons instead. He was tormented by his sexual desires for women until one night he had a vision that the Goddess told him to castrate himself. He visited a eunuch named Nirmala and said, "Make me one of you." A flashback scene shows him in a red sari and a long-haired wig, surrounded by other eunuchs draping him in a veil and clapping their hands before a bonfire. Even after his castration, he continues to think of women as "devils." It is not clear whether his personal identity is more feminine or masculine. His personal journey to castration was certainly atypical and, unlike most other eunuchs, he wears masculine clothes most of the time, putting on women's dress only when killing girls.

Nirmala remains his mentor. When she visits him at the police station, she addresses him as "Sakhi" - "friend" in Hindi, which can also be a girl's name - but uses the pronoun "he" to refer to him when speaking with the police. Nirmala tells an official: "You are making a mistake by entrapping the devotee of the Goddess! I will levy a curse on you that will make you suffer badly!" The official challenges her to explain how she can hurt him. She warns him that his phone will ring immediately and then he will be castrated, too. In Nirmala's words: "You will dance at marriages at nights and beg at traffic signals during the day." (This is traditional behavior for eunuchs in modern India.) The phone rings with a relevant message, and so, presumably due to the officer's fear of offending Nirmala, the criminal is released. (The question of whether Nirmala actually possesses magical abilities is never answered.)

Nirmala goads Dhiraj to visit the local temple of their goddess Bahucharaji, the patron of eunuchs. Nirmala funded the construction of this particular temple with her dancing money and Dhiraj sculpted the idol. A younger, maverick police officer concerned about the release of the criminal follows the pair to the temple and watches them. Dhiraj acknowledges the presence of his pursuer by staring at him with a strangely gaping mouth as if he is cursing him.

When Dhiraj senses that he is cornered, he briefly prays to the goddess, then suddenly slays three people including Nirmala, the priest serving the goddess, and a girl whom he'd previously left for dead. His willful, deceitful offense against another eunuch and against the eunuch's goddess ultimately pins his evil on a source outside of the eunuch community and outside of his castration. It is made reasonably clear to the viewer that he was a sadist before he chose to be castrated and he remains a sadist after he renounces the eunuch's life. This softens what is otherwise an unflattering portrayal of eunuchs in the film.

Originally posted Sept. 11, 2011 to Helium Network.

The false eunuch's end of innocence in 'The Northumberland Shepherd'

The Eunuch: Or, the Northumberland Shepherd is a short story published in London in 1752 by an anonymous author. The preface suggests it is a fictionalization of a true story; the author's intent was to expose a moral issue without exposing the actual people involved. The prose is a little rough around the edges but serves the purpose of the "false eunuch" farce well enough.

The fictional narrator, Harry Collison, grew up sleeping outdoors in a bucolic environment in Northumberland in England. He was the oldest of five children raised on a diet of bread and water. When some visitors from the nearby castle overheard the fourteen-year-old boy making music, they bought him from his parents for one crown and brought him into their wealthy household. He was primarily entrusted to a thirty-something woman as his music teacher, her husband being frequently absent; they had a daughter about his age and a couple of female servants.

At seventeen, Harry was "thin, and of an effeminate and clear countenance…and called handsome." One night, his mistress—who is never given a name—pretended to be afraid of some noises in the house and crawled into bed with him. "Harry," she said, "you know your father told me at first, how it was with you…such a one as you are, is next of kin to one's own sex…I have nothing to fear, I am sensible of your defects, and pity you." Although he did not understand her words, she was implying that she had always believed him to be a castrato, and that she believed he could not impregnate her.

The next day, she explained to him, stammering all the way around the embarrassing word, that she believed "you was an—such a sort of a—that is—one of those—that—like a keeper of the eastern kings [sic] mistresses—or as—like the Italian singers at the opera, whom you have heard, when you have attended me thither—that is—they call them—eunuchs." She argued that his father was at fault for misleading her, and that, since their affair had already begun, there was no crime in continuing it.

Eventually, she became pregnant. So did her teenage daughter, Dolly. So did their servant, Betty.

Whereas the mistress seemed to have schemed, lied, and manipulated, the servant seemed to be genuinely naïve. Even after having slept with Harry, Betty wondered how she could possibly be pregnant, once again stammering around the forbidden word: "only—because—some people—were not like other people—" Learning too late that he was not a eunuch, she dismissed him as a "base deceiver."

While the master of the house never learned that his wife's child was by their "castrato" slave musician, and while the servant simply left the employ of the house to give birth privately, there was no way to hide the fact of Dolly's pregnancy. The girl lay in bed for months, pretending to have dropsy, but at the end there was a baby. Harry was obviously implicated, and he fled the house to avoid the wrath of Dolly's father, his master. Dolly was sent overseas to stay with a family member.

Harry lodged with a barber (the unstated irony being that barbers during this time period also served as professional castrators of musically talented boys). The barber disguised Harry as an old man, such that he was able to make a living as an itinerant singer under the nickname "Old Daddy."

Returning to the castle, he privately sang his old songs for his mistress so she would recognize. He expressed no remorse for having gotten three women pregnant and showed no curiosity in the offspring. (His mistress's young son, named after him, was presumably in the house, but wasn't mentioned to the reader.) Rather, Harry only wished to blame his mistress for spreading the false story around the household that he was unable to father children.

Harry quickly completed an "honest marriage" with a woman he had just met. She did not know his name until she accepted his marriage proposal; the reader is never told her name. There the story came to an end, with the author's warning: "The man who purchases an house, considers how long it may stand, and rates his price accordingly; but he that purchases only sinful delights, neither knows their continuance, or the price they will cost him."

The reader may find it odd that, of Harry's four love interests, the two with the most significant speaking roles remain nameless. Not only does it seem a bit odd that Harry's real gender status would have remained secret for years, given the eventual importance of this information, but it is nearly incomprehensible that Harry was unaware that everyone in the household believed him to be a eunuch. Harry's callous, teenaged indifference to his conquests is a little off-putting, and the author's intended moral lesson is unclear.

This is a peculiar example of a story sold for a shilling in the mid-eighteenth century, and it is amusing to imagine how people might have read it aloud and acted out the silly dialogue for entertainment.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Sept. 18, 2012.

Image: An Italian street musician in 1877. From `Street Life in London`, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. © No known copyright restrictions. LSE Library. Flickr.

An omniscient narrator’s insight into Vicente Herrasti’s fictional eunuch

The eunuch character Akorna is vital to Vicente Herrasti's Spanish-language novel "The Death of the Philosopher."

Vicente Herrasti's novel "The Death of the Philosopher (Acarnia in the Distance)" - "La muerte del filosofo (Acarnia en lontananza)" - imagines events following the death of the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Gorgias. Published in 2004, the Mexican author's book does not seem to have been translated from Spanish into English yet, except for the first chapter which was translated by Sylvia Sasson Shorris and can be read free online.

The main character is Akorna, a faithful servant of the aged philosopher during the last years of his life. When Gorgias finally dies, the soft, unsuspecting slave is cast to the whims of much harder men who are interested in the philosopher because they suspect he has died with a hidden fortune. 

The omniscient narrator knows - or at least claims to know - the thoughts of Gorgias, Akorna and all the other characters. The reader is therefore privy to their schemes and knows when they are lying to each other. Generally, the narrator does not seem to attempt to judge or mediate the characters' thoughts, although proverbs are frequently quoted from Gorgias' masterpiece "Exhortation to Obedience."

Missing 'source tags'

A phrase such as "Akorna thought..." might be referred to by cognitive scientists as a "source tag," according to Lisa Zunshine in "Why We Read Fiction", in the sense that it attributes the information that follows to a particular source, that is, a particular person. The narrator of "The Death of the Philosopher" often omits these source tags.

So, for example, while Akorna tends the dying Gorgias, the narrator tells us, "there's no room for doubt: the scent of laurelberry would cling to Akorna to the end of his days." Following the narrator's implicit claim to know Akorna's present or future thoughts, he adds: "No more fig compote, wild mulberries and honey; no more rations of clean water with bran..." Is this a simple statement of fact: There will be no more fig compote? Or is it another statement about Akorna's mind: Akorna imagines never bringing fig compote to Gorgias again and perhaps never eating it again, but he might be mistaken?

One of the characters is a captain who, in one instance, reflects about the uselessness of poetry immediately before great violence. It is difficult to tell whether the reader should trust that this is indeed the captain's sentiment or if there are layers of interpretation that should be credited to the narrator or the author. Of course, as this is a work of fiction, there are no facts about what anyone "actually" feels in the sense that none of the characters actually exist. It is historical fiction based loosely upon the life of Gorgias, who did really exist but about whom little is known. The omniscient narrator's voice has a way of flattening out the distinctions between different characters' minds, emphasizing that a story is being told, but resisting too much inquiry into how the narrator came to know who was thinking what.

The eunuch, 'el acarnio'

Akorna's master has always erroneously called him "el acarnio," a reference to a mountainous region in central Greece. This region as it is described in the comedy "The Acharnians" by Aristophanes, a contemporary of Gorgias, is usually translated as Acharnania, but translated into Spanish by Angel Maria Garibay it became "Acarnia," and this is what Herrasti chose to use, according to the book's glossary. Herrasti's term "el acarnio" is also wordplay on the lack of carnal drive, as Akorna is a eunuch. He never corrected his master during his ten years of service until finally he stood over his corpse and uttered his true name.

As an unassertive, uneducated slave, Akorna is picked on by other characters and further derided by the narrator for being a eunuch. "The eunuch's intellectual faculties weren't much better than those of his comrades in misfortune," the narrator says, meaning he's no brighter than the average eunuch, but qualifies it by adding that the philosopher had treated him as if he were educated. He is described as a "man without manhood" ("hombre sin hombria"), fat and unfeminine, having been castrated after puberty.

Frinico, a man who shows sympathy to Akorna, has never seen a eunuch before and wonders things like "Was the castrate's laugh a final fleshly caprice, his minute legacy?"

Akorna's devotion to his master

Frinico is aware that others are interested in ascertaining the location of Gorgias' fortune. Akorna, who cries even thinking about profaning his master's tomb, has no idea that his life is at risk until Frinico warns him, even though he has been treated poorly since Gorgias' death to the extent that men have wiped their hands on his hair, forced him to stand the longest in the extreme heat next to Gorgias' funeral pyre and chained him up. The slave has wished he were dead, but he does not contemplate suicide.

Before losing consciousness next to the funeral pyre, Akorna hallucinated that the pages of the "Exhortation to Obedience" were stored in his wounded area, under the skin where his glands used to be. This is an access to a very private mental detail about which the reader might imagine that even Akorna himself might not remember after reviving. This contrasts the book with Gustave Flaubert's historical novel "Salammbo", set in the third century B.C.E. in North Africa, in which the eunuch high priest Schahabarim is described almost entirely in terms of his outward behavior, and the reader knows very little about what that character privately thinks and feels.

A unique book

There are few books with well developed eunuch characters. Herrasti's novel ranks among those few, and it is a worthwhile read. The book is, however, challenging for someone who is not fluent in Spanish, for while it is relatively short, it uses a rich Spanish vocabulary. A good dictionary will be indispensable.

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 17, 2012.

Image: Bonfire at the Feast of St Jean. © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license Wikimedia Commons.

David O. Cauldwell’s work about the effects of forcible 'sex transmutation'

Effects of Castration on Men and Women is a lesser-known work of the early twentieth-century sexologist David O. Cauldwell, M.D., published by Haldeman-Julius in 1947. The 32-page book is written in clipped, direct sentences that rely on fairly simple vocabulary and a very basic medical understanding of glands and hormones, making it accessible to a wide audience.

Cauldwell defined castration as the removal of the testicles or – as became possible as a deliberate act much later in human history – the ovaries.

The discussion of the castration of women is restricted to the third and fourth of ten chapters. He pointed out that abdominal surgery is dangerous, and he complained that some "eugenically minded" surgeons of the time preferred to thus sterilize a woman than to offer other forms of birth control.

Although he lamented that some women are unnecessarily operated upon, his opinion was that, while a man prefers losing "a leg or an eye" to castration, a woman is bothered by castration no more than by losing "the tonsils or the appendix." Furthermore, while a man tends to hide such an affliction, a woman "goes about broadcasting her condition to almost anyone who will listen." No doubt this overstatement contributed toward his overall focus on men.

He found it either important or entertaining to reference the ancient Babylonian myth of the Descent of Ishtar, in which, when the goddess went underground, humans and animals stopped having sex. The other gods decided that Ishtar must be brought back, but they believed that it would be inappropriate to send either a man or a woman, so they castrated a man and sent him to recover the goddess. Cauldwell's opinion is that this myth originated to provide "some reason...for this particular kind of man's inhumanity to man."

The Biblical kings Solomon and David mutilated their enemies. This forcible sexual mutilation was, he opined, less civilized behavior than the scalping practiced by American Indians who were generally deemed by the Europeans to be entirely uncivilized. This kind of racialized appeal has an interesting, if unclear, effect in a work that generally defends the eugenic approach popular in that era.

A castrated male child, Cauldwell wrote, "never actually becomes a man," and though intelligent will be "invariably devoid of the ability to exercise mature judgement in matters of consequence"; he contrasted this with eunuchs who may "have regular coitus" if castrated in adulthood. He complained of the irony that, "like religious celibates, they [eunuchs] often undertake to legislate a pattern or a set of patterns for sexually normal people."

Other famous eunuchs he cited include Potiphar, the servant of the Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus; Domitian's favored boy, Earinus; and Tarses, eighteenth-century general and king of Persia.

He explained that Judge Frank Collier in California had recently set a precedent for offering convicted child molesters the Hobson's choice of lifelong prison or castration; it became popularly known as "Collier's Choice."

Cauldwell (1897-1959) is known as one of the first sexologists to have used the word "transsexual." In this book, he titled the fourth chapter "Desire for Surgical Sex Transmutation: An Insane Fancy of Near Males." This sounds like it tells you everything one needs to know about Cauldwell's opinion about gender nonconformism. Indeed, he goes on to refer to crossdressing men as having a "mental twist" possibly indicating "glandular pathology." He colorfully introduces the topic with this hypothetical: "Should someone tell you that your next door neighbor, a hard-working man by day, discarded his rough work clothing upon reaching home at night, bathed, shaved closely, and donned feminine make-up and finery for his evening's relaxation, you might be both startled and surprised." Some might feel that this slightly sensationalizes the topic. However, if he did not exactly defend the dignity of transsexuals, he at least provided some validation of their feelings and their existence.

Of "inverts," a.k.a. "homosexual" men – which he confused somewhat with transsexual women, who in turn were conflated with people with a Freudian "castration complex" – he was careful to say not that they are guilty of criminal sex acts, but rather that they are "guilty of what the law chooses to call criminal sex acts." After all, some people are "willing to label almost anything connected with sex as criminal." This language that seems too subtle today would have been read as a pointed objection to the criminalization of homosexuality when it was published 56 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sweeping laws against consensual sex acts known as "sodomy" were unconstitutional.

Cauldwell's opinion was that doctors were in a better position than legislators "to remedy sick minds," and he looked forward to the day when "the leprous hands of thin-brained censors are forever purged from the affairs of mankind." Censors of books, he said, prevent the general public from obtaining information and are "so-called humans who are worse social misfits" than many psychiatric patients.

He indicated that, when he received a letter of inquiry from a gay man who said with respect to his lover "I want to change my sex for him," he told the individual that such surgery was irreversible and occasionally fatal. He advised the man to act on behalf of his own authentic self and not for the sake of what he thought his lover wanted, and he suggested that the man request testosterone or psychiatric medication before seeking surgical sex reassignment. (Testosterone had been isolated and synthesized only a few years earlier; he did caution later in the book that "any attempt at self-treatment with hormone preparations is a foolish waste of money.")

After he published this letter of response – which one might anticipate would be somewhat off-putting to parties interested in sex reassignment – "innumerable requests were received for further information" about "surgical sex transmutation." Evidently, there was an unmet need for information about the topic. It is sobering to think that this book might have been the first meaningful information resource that some people in the 1940s put their hands on – and that, decades earlier, there was even less available to the public.

Image: A man dances in a jaguar-print suit somewhere between 1910-1915. © George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). No known copyright restrictions. Flickr.

'The Keeper of the Bed': Unpacking the complex history of eunuchs

Charles Humana's book The Keeper of the Bed: The Story of the Eunuch (1973) is a curiosity that is worth a look by anyone who is interested in how eunuchs were depicted throughout history. Born in Nottingham, England in 1921, Humana – born Joseph Jacobs – was a human rights advocate who authored several books and died in London in 1992. "Keeper of the Bed" strikes a confident tone, but it will leave the careful reader with many questions.

Humana quips that the eunuch is often thought of as "a human pterodactyl or dodo," that is, as "one of the extinct creatures of the earth". He emphatically rejects the common assertion that they were a "third sex," although he does not fully explain what he means by that. His only elaboration is that it is more correct to perceive them as "deprived men" rather than as transformed beings.

The text demonstrates that Humana is well-read in his subject matter. He drops many key references and provides a bibliography. For anyone who wants to begin studying the history of eunuchs, this book is a good selection, insofar as it provides excerpts of important works and thus can almost be counted as an anthology. The reprinted works include: Giacomo Casanova's memoir of Bellino; six tales from Richard Burton's "Arabian Nights"; G. Carter Stent's essay, "Chinese Eunuchs"; and some of the "Persian Letters" by Baron de Montesquieu. There are also lengthy quotations from Charles Ancillon's Eunuchism Display'd and from travel writer Paul Rycaut.

Humana recognizes that eunuchs are the victims of much misunderstanding. Although he writes that "historians from Herodotus to Gibbon, in sharing the common prejudice, have fallen short of their usual objectivity," he does not escape employing this prejudice himself, insofar as he makes many generalizations. He observes from the outset that "writers from Xenophon to Burton, from Juvenal to Montesquieu, contradicted each other," but his book winds up simply citing anecdotes and publishing long passages without the level of critical analysis that could resolve these contradictions. In short, he sees prejudice and falsehood, but doesn't answer either.

"Historians and writers, court officials and ordinary people, were almost unanimous in regarding them as monsters and freaks," he writes, "their mutilation seldom accepted with the sympathetic concern shown to those who had lost legs, or arms or sight." He points out that the ancient world treated eunuchs as comic figures on the stage, but never as weighty tragic figures with deep human motivations. He acknowledges Montesquieu's fiction as having been "distinguished by treating the eunuch as a human being rather than as a totally evil creature."

He calls Richard Millant's Les Eunuques à travers les ages, published in 1908, "the most recent comprehensive work," yet says it is "nevertheless misleading since it is one of a study of sexual perversions." This is confusing. If he believes that Millant's book grossly misidentifies as a sexual perversion what should be properly understood as the product of war, slavery and sacrifice, how could he possibly call Millant's book "comprehensive"?

At the beginning of "The Keeper of the Bed," Humana identifies three reasons for castration. The first reason is war, or more precisely, "vengeance on a fallen enemy." The second reason is slavery, because castrated slaves were preferred for their "practical advantages" in certain roles; namely, in societies that segregated men and women, castrated men filled critical gaps as messengers and guardians. The presence of eunuchs enabled a particular institutionalized form of segregation. The third reason is ritual sacrifice, usually of one's own body or sexual urges, to appease a god.

This short list of reasons is manifestly incomplete because, later on, the book acknowledges many other reasons for castration. Retributive violence is not always confined to war. The theologian Abelard was castrated as punishment for having married illicitly, the eunuch Hermotimus took vengeance on his castrator and the man's sons, and slaves could be punished for any number of transgressions. Slaves may, of course, have been castrated for reasons unrelated to their service; not all were deliberately castrated for the purpose of serving a particular role.

Furthermore, some slaves were castrated to groom them for sexual roles (as was Nero's concubine Sporus), purposes that are not quite covered by the term "practical advantages." Some men were coerced by poverty or family pressure into seeking employment as eunuchs, as was common in China. Some wearied of married life or sexual urges, independent of any religious belief. Some were castrated by illness or accident. Some were guinea pigs for the Nazis. Some were castrated by doctors who more genuinely believed that this treatment would ameliorate their physical or mental problems. Overlapping with this category are individuals who identified as women and elected castration (or were pushed toward it) as an attempt to address their gender identity. Of these, Humana drops just one example at the end of the book: a Norwegian adolescent in Johan Bremer's book Asexualization (1959). Humana, however, rolls this case study into the category of "homosexuals" mistreated by doctors, and he does not tease out any further implications about gender identity, even though the quoted passage indicates that this person said he felt more like a girl and requested to be castrated.

Again, Humana acknowledges all these stories within the book – he just fails to analyze them, and therefore never knits together a complete list of all the reasons for castration. He explicitly provides a partial list and implicitly provides the rest.

Even his title, "The Keeper of the Bed," is a misnomer, because the book does not solely examine the Persian and Chinese harems. The book includes, for example, Italian singers. His repeated stylistic reference to "the eunuch" is a misleading generalization, because obviously there was more than one kind of eunuch.

A recent critical reaction to "The Keeper of the Bed" can be found in Gary Taylor's book Castration (2000) in a footnote to page 17. Taylor groups Humana's book with similar histories: Peter Tompkins' The Eunuch and the Virgin (1962) and Victor T. Cheney's A Brief History of Castration (1995). Taylor complains that these three books "were all written by amateur scholars with sometimes peculiar agendas." Humana, he complains, "included sixteen (mostly soft-porn) illustrations, uncritically accepted the universal validity of Freud's castration theories, and began and ended his book deploring 'the certainty' of vasectomy becoming 'compulsory in a future era', thereby producing 'dull generations of future sterile males' and 'submissively sterile' husbands. There is, of course, no evidence that vasectomies produce dullness or submissiveness." These sorts of books, Taylor goes on, "pay little attention to current scholarship on the texts they cite or the cultures they describe; they are essentially sensational and anecdotal."

The anecdotes in "The Keeper of the Bed" are divided by theme: "The Eunuch Through the Ages," "The Eunuch as Fantasy," "Eunuchs of East and West," and "Heaven and Earth Eunuchs." Humana wrote introductions for each part, but he did not write conclusions, nor a conclusion for the book as a whole.

One of his skimpy, faulty analyses appears in his claim that "In all societies the eunuch was involved in homosexual relationships. Those who were castrated before puberty…were the delight of paederasts, while those who had full-grown organs…offer their favors to both men and women. One can therefore conclude…that both passive and active castrati had opportunities of leading busy sex lives." The first comment is ambiguous: surely some, but not all, eunuchs had sex with men. The second comment is unduly restrictive: why should the age of castration determine whether someone is capable of heterosexual feeling and behavior? The third comment is tautological: to speak of "passive" or "active" in this context is to describe a kind of sex behavior, and if the person had a sex life, then of course he had the opportunity to have a sex life. (Never mind that, for slaves, some of these "opportunities" were compulsory.) A more meaningful paragraph would have acknowledged broad possibilities of sexual diversity, including celibacy.

"The Keeper of the Bed" is surely not the last word on historical eunuchs. Only half of its interest value lies in the anecdotes about the eunuchs themselves, while the other half lies in the meta-analysis of the authors' attitudes and assumptions. For those who are interested in both, the book provides ample fodder.

Originally published to Helium Network on July 25, 2013.

‘Glory in the task of it’: The life of a fictional eunuch in Iran

Like many other books that feature eunuch characters, "Equal of the Sun" opens with a description of the main character’s castration. The eunuch narrator in this instance recounts his story for a princess, upon her request.

Yet this story differs significantly from other books that employ the same gambit. Equal of the Sun, set in mid-sixteenth-century Iran by novelist Anita Amirrezvani and published in 2012, is one of the deepest and most complex treatments of a eunuch character in modern literature.

The story is narrated by a young man of noble birth. Distraught that his father has been fingered as a traitor and summarily executed, he promises himself that he will ferret out his father’s persecutor, but to do that, he needs access to the palace. So, at seventeen years of age, he voluntarily submits to castration and applies to the palace as a eunuch servant. He is accepted as the personal servant of the quick-witted Princess Pari, daughter of the Shah, who privately declares the eunuch to be her “chief of information.” He is taken under the wing of other high-ranking eunuchs who give him his palace name, Javaher, meaning “jewel.” His mentor is Balamani, who came from India as a child slave and who is second in command to the chief eunuch Anwar, who came from Africa.

Javaher feels a close bond with his princess, whom he often calls “the lieutenant of my life.” She tells him, “How curious it is that you were sent to me: I would never have expected to feel such kinship with a eunuch.” And he thinks to himself: “I began to feel, when we were alone, that we were not just princess and servant – we were hamrah, companions on the same road.” Smarter than her brothers, the princess wishes to rule alone and thinks of Javaher as her “acting vizier.” She even presents him with a religiously engraved, gilt steel dagger in a leather scabbard as a symbol of their pact.

She reflects on their bond: “My job is to mother my country, not bear children. Yours is the same.” In silent response, Javaher thinks: “How different we were from ordinary men and women!” Reconceiving his personal mission as the “grand and strange” goal of leading the country to a brighter future makes him feel hopeful.

Javaher is selected by the princess in part because he presents a well controlled demeanor at court. However, he is capable of passive aggression. While arguing with Balamani over how they will respond to news of a murder, his nonverbal language reveals his anger indirectly: “I lifted the blanket off my bedroll with so much force that it flew onto the floor.” He is not often molested, presenting himself as a force to be reckoned with.

Not all the eunuchs in the story are described in complimentary terms. Abteen the scribe is “sunken-chested” with “rounded shoulders,” humorless and bored by gifts. Fareed is a messenger who is never assigned to stay long because his botched castration causes him always to smell of urine. A nameless guard lolls in sleep outside the women’s chamber, enabling Javaher to sneak in. Seen in the eunuchs’ private bath, Anwar and his friend look like women with “pendulous breasts and flat pubic areas.”

Javaher, on the other hand, is described as more masculine in appearance because of the relatively late age at which he was castrated. He retains sexual interest in women and manages to have an active sex life (which is described explicitly) despite the complete loss of all of his male organs. At first, while relearning how to urinate, it seems that “the vertigo was so great I feared I would slip into the latrines. Was I male? Female? What was I?” Yet soon he comes to feel that “my freshly healed wound had reinvented my capacity for pleasure.”

Javaher has a strong sense of self. He knows himself “as a man, not just as a eunuch. I was, after all, more than a mutilation, in my own eyes.” He finds inspiration in other eunuchs, including the Chinese eunuch Cai Lun who was said to have invented paper and Alexander’s lover Bagoas who “led the ancient empire of Iran, crushing even mighty Egypt,” whose names he invokes prayerfully. He sympathizes with other eunuchs, as when he throws stones to anonymously wake a guard so he will not be punished for sleeping on the job.

He is ambivalent about his situation. He fears that women will leave him as they graduate to marriages. “Most women crave children, and that was the one thing I could not provide,” he acknowledges. “Yet I was still a man, wasn’t I?” In a nightmare, a woman asks him in bed: “What are you?” Yet he is able to recognize that “something deep within me wanted to sacrifice myself for my father, just as he had given his life for us,” and this sacrifice lends meaning to his life choice and its consequences. When his princess writes a poem celebrating him and his “third sex” nature, he glows: “My birth as a eunuch had finally been recognized and recorded with as much fanfare as the moment a male child enters the world.” Just as he recalls hearing a blind poet who puts great feeling into each word, he finds that “there was glory in being half, not whole, glory in the task of it.”

For Javaher, this mythic “task” is not so much to be physically whole but to live honestly. After separate altercations with two men, Javaher explains to Balamani:

“I may pay the price of my life for my words, but at least I said them. I don’t care that I made an enemy. I don’t care that I may lose my posting. For once, I did not feel as if what was true in my heart as as different from what was on my lips as day to night. I became like hot white light, pure and clean. I felt as if my testicles had grown to the size of mountains and I had earned the right to shout out, 'I am a complete man!'"

In many novels, eunuchs are villains or objects of pity or scorn. Where they are supporting characters, they often have nearly non-speaking roles and are typecast in terms of their job functions rather than being allowed to convey a sense of self and autonomy. Anita Amirrezvani has bucked the trend by depicting a eunuch who is indisputably a full human being. She reveals that she began writing the novel with "six alternating narrators" until, unsurprisingly, Javaher "emerged as the most compelling of the bunch."

Originally posted to Helium Network on May 1, 2013.

In Equal of the Sun, the princess deliberately breaks a bowl like this 12th-century Persian one. Marie-Lan Nguyen (2005) © Public domain. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dept Ancient Near Eastern Art, online DB entry 140008703 Wikimedia Commons.

Edna Pontellier’s unwomanly vocation in ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

In Kate Chopin's 1899 novel "The Awakening", the protagonist, 28-year-old Mrs. Edna Pontellier, is bored to distraction by marriage and motherhood. She does not feel like one of the "mother-women," whom she perceives as those "who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels." Instead, Edna becomes increasingly interested in realizing herself as an individual.

To her, becoming an individual involves artistic expression. The crafts that are socially permitted to women like herself do not entirely fulfill her desires, at least insofar as she must remain faithful to a restrictive gender role and cannot use the art to discover herself. Listening to children's recitals and knitting winter garments while it is still summer on the Louisiana bayou leaves her artistic needs unfulfilled.

The book raises the issue of how Edna's fellow white society-members treat their black servants, especially where crafts are concerned. This is not overt, but is embedded in the way Kate Chopin turns her phrases. In one paragraph, Chopin places the character "Madame Lebrun" at a sewing machine, with "a little black girl" under it at the pedal, accompanied by the comment that "The Creole woman does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health." The comment exposes the ridiculousness on two counts: first, that a woman might be injured or exhausted by pushing her own pedal while sewing, and second, that the mature white woman is concerned for her own well-being but not for that of a young black girl who could easily be accidentally kicked.

In another paragraph, "two black women" make ice cream for party guests. As Chopin was writing in the nineteenth century, she did not bother to say, but the modern reader must infer, that making ice cream was an especially laborious process before the invention of electric refrigerators. The white man watching over the servants' work is depicted as "proud of his achievement."

Thus, even where crafts like sewing or dessert-making could be a form of artistic satisfaction among the white elite, these jobs are outsourced to black servants, and the white people do not fully acknowledge how they have partially removed themselves from the artistic process.

At one dinner party, everything changes for Edna. A woman plays the work of the composer Frédéric Chopin, sending "a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier's spinal column." The tremor is a joint product of the artist and of the appreciator. "Perhaps it was the first time she was ready" to hear it, the writer muses, "perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth."

Later, when Edna tells this same pianist that she has taken up painting, the pianist responds reflexively that Edna has "pretensions" for thinking of herself as an artist. This comment sticks with Edna, who later forms a response to it in her own mind: "The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies."

As a young woman, Edna gave up "the realm of romance and dreams" and married a wealthy man to "take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality." But what is dream, and what is reality? Her father believes that "authority, coercion" are needed to "manage a wife"; her doctor believes that women are "moody and whimsical"; her husband insists that her wifely duties should be prioritized above her art. She begins to wonder if this is not the only world available to her. "I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly," she says, "but I have got into a habit of expressing myself."

Married to a man whose possessiveness and direction offends her, she "began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream...to feel again the realities pressing into her soul." Her wealthy husband provides for her "external existence." But what of her internal existence, her identity? In a fit of frustration, she stomps on her wedding ring and smashes a glass. She perceives that her need to express herself as an individual is suddenly more real than any pragmatic concerns. One such "reality" is her acknowledged "symptoms of infatuation" for another man.

Edna earns enough money selling her sketches to move into a separate house, leaving her husband and two young children behind. She is haunted by the voice of a younger man she adores; his voice is "not pretentious," "musical and true."

The novel's title, "The Awakening", refers to Edna "beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her." Her husband unfortunately "could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self, which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world." Indeed, "her own soul had invited her" to find "the deeper undercurrents of life." Her growing artistic sensitivity plays a central role in her awakening.

Originally posted Sept. 29, 2012 to Helium Network.

Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann (1819-1881), Danish painter. Image by: Rudolph Striegler (1816-1876) © Department of Maps, Print and Photographs, Royal Library, Denmark. No known copyright restrictions. Flickr.

Rambling history and exotic fancy: ‘The Eunuch and the Virgin’

"The Eunuch and the Virgin" engulfs the reader in a cloud of heron and emu feathers and provides distraction from everyday life with tales of adulterers hanging from their guilty parts, jerid polo games, sacrificial victims allowed to bleed out into the sown fields, ambergris sherbet, ominous holes cut in sheets and scrotal relics like dried figs. A few sentences of Tompkins's purple prose frosted in French as the cord pulls round your neck and the knife gleams — and you are under his spell.

Peter Tompkins (1919-2007) worked as an undercover agent for the Allies in World War II and, in 1962, he published this uniquely fascinating volume about the lives of castrated men. The most bewildering thing about this book is that it initially seems to have no animating argument. Tompkins culled an astonishing number of anecdotes from history and literature and plumped them with exotic detail. The result is something like a creme-filled pastry that has little nutritive value.

What is missing from the book

There are no illustrations in the book, which is not a problem — as the verbal richness is picture enough — and yet something deeper is missing. There is nothing about the political systems or social stratification that enabled castration on a large scale. There is no attempt to enter the mind of a castrated man and understand his psychological experience. There is no thread unifying the castration of boys and men for religious or secular reasons, for harems or choirs, in war or peace or in East or West. There is no justification of why these diverse occurrences can all be contained in the same book. He writes about castration itself and relatively little about its context. "The history of Byzantium reads from one castration to the next," he writes. Indeed, the entire world could be so enumerated, if that is how one chose to write history; the question is why Tompkins has chosen to do so.

Many useful books are long on catalog and short on argument; they are called encyclopedias. These, however, are systematically organized. Tompkins nearly made a small encyclopedia of eunuchs in "The Eunuch and the Virgin". The bulk of the text is separated into chapters by geography, but within these chapters there is no consistent chronology, such that one can never be sure what century it is when a new paragraph starts. There is no index of names. This format gives the reader no choice but to plunge into the book and enjoy whatever he or she may find along the way, and thereby creates an air of continual surprise and discovery for the enthusiastic reader. On the other hand, the wondrous, loosely connected details can frustrate the reader who desires not only a barrage of lewd and morbid titillations but a grand organizing thesis of the meaning of it all.

How 'The Eunuch and the Virgin' is unique

Upon his death in 2007, the Times of London published an obituary for Tompkins referring to "The Eunuch and the Virgin" as simply "an account of the Turkish harem tradition." It is far more than that. The book opens with an introductory chapter that surveys eunuchs in many cultures. Then there is a chapter dedicated to China, four chapters on Turkey (white eunuchs, black eunuchs, harem girls and the sultan), a chapter on the Italian castrati who sang in churches and opera houses, a chapter on the Russian Skoptzy who were a Christian sect, and a chapter on ancient Roman and Greek cults. In scope it exceeds the early eighteenth-century "Eunuchism Display'd" which only dealt with eunuchs in European history from ancient Rome through the castrati. Eventually, Tompkins does attempt a sort of conclusion across the final four chapters, but unfortunately it does not contribute to scholarship on either the history or the mythology of castration.

The first of the frighteningly rambling concluding chapters begins: "What on earth - or in heaven - could motivate human beings to act in such a fantastic manner?" This is a good part of what the inquiring reader wants to know, but it is not answered. Tompkins launches into mythological symbolism as explicated by Joseph Frazer and others regarding the cycle of seasons, the chain of being, the identity of Venus and the moon, and so forth, with the ultimate takeaway being unclear. Is the reader supposed to take this cosmology literally? How do the planets relate to castration more so than to other any human foible or endeavor?

In the second of the concluding chapters, he presents some of the fringe theories of the astronomer Velikovsky. Tompkins cites Velikovsky and Bellamy's claim that myth is a form of eyewitness report rather than a form of symbolism and, therefore, myth may be treated as history. In the third concluding chapter, his unscientific bizarrities increase to claim that "orgone," a non-existent form of energy proposed by Wilhelm Reich, makes the sky blue and that Ethiopians are dark-skinned because of the heat from a comet. "Having traced the Eunuch and the Virgin into the mist and myth of the antediluvian world," he writes, "the quest for the origin of castration now leads into the twilight of poetry and psychology, and beyond it, into the rarefied ether of the pneumatologist and mystic." In a breathless, incoherent, prolonged rant about dodecahedrons, cosmic eggs, sacred androgynes and horsemen of the Apocalypse, "the origin of castration" is never addressed.

Better sources

Although "The Eunuch and the Virgin" can serve as a starting point for gathering the names of eunuchs in various times and places, it goes without saying that serious historians would do better to go directly to Tompkins' sources: Carter Stent and Vincent Starrett on Chinese eunuchs, Barnette Miller and Norman M. Penzer on Turkish eunuchs. With this acknowledgment comes the disappointing realization that the immensely entertaining first half of Tompkins' book is infected by his strange methodology of giving every ancient anecdote equal weight as if it were literal truth. Yet somehow, this does not diminish the inimitable joy of reading his exquisitely exotified turns of phrase nor the excitement in his creative attempt to produce a cross-cultural compendium of castration.

This article was originally posted Aug. 30, 2011 to Helium Network.

Image: Advertisement for "Murad" Turkish cigarettes, Life Magazine, May 2, 1918. Uncredited artist. © public domain Wikimedia Commons.